Monday, March 22, 2010

7.5 years

I just came back from a two week vacation to my home in Delhi, India. My trip made me think of the following several times : how much had I 'Americanized?' How had the past seven and a half years that I have spent in the US, living in Boston, Atlanta and Chicago, changed me? Several key themes emerged:

1. Broad Minded: There is no doubt in my mind that I am more accepting of different lifestyle choices made by people. Exposure to people of different nationalities, values, races, professions etc. in the US has certainly made me realize that everyone does not think the same way that I do. I accept the fact.

But does this mean that I am unbiased? Certainly not. I stereotype, based on color, religion etc. Why? Because everyone does. Because it is human nature. The challenge is, how do you counteract and balance your biases to not judge too soon. I still struggle with that.

2. Notion of Patriotism: I made a trip to Wagah Border near Amritsar, Punjab. Wagah border is the only road border between India and Pakistan. Every evening, there is a retreat ceremony called 'lowering of the flags,' including a parade by soldiers from both sides, in which they shake hands and signify friendship between the two countries.

However, before the parade starts, there was a long ceremony in which people shouted slogans praising their respective country. It was almost competitive: the Indian crowd trying to outdo the Pakistani crowd, and vice versa. It was meant to awaken a feeling of patriotism in one. But it did not happen.

My notion of patriotism has certainly changed. I never feel patriotic towards India as I used to when we beat Pakistan in cricket, hockey etc. Instead, I feel patriotic when I learn about the entrepreneurs that have made their name in India and us, about freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, about the countless number of people dedicating their lives, working in NGOs in India. In short, India is great because it is great on its own, not because it is able to 'beat' Pakistan at something.

Why do I feel different now? I think it is largely governed by the friends I have made in the US, who are originally from Pakistan. For the longest time, I did not know they were from Pakistan; I might have never know. The life they had growing up was very similar to what I had in India. I do not subscribe to the India -Pakistan rivalry anymore, it is unproductive, dangerous and fueling negative sentiments.

3. Materialistism: I had several interesting conversations this time in Delhi with my friends, family members etc. about the amount of pomp in Delhi. Economic progress has transformed the lives of the upper and upper middle class the most, but it has lead to a rivalry in which everyone is trying to outspend each other - more expensive jewelry, bigger, more lavish parties etc. etc.

A prime example of this is the number of malls that have cropped up. The best example is a mall called Emporio which is one of the first luxury malls in India. An average shirt seemed to cost around $300 there, and it contained all the top brands in the world: Hugo Boss, Armani, Burberry etc.

Meanwhile, I have gotten much simpler in my lifestyle. I care much less about dressing nicely on a day to day basis; particularly, I don't care about what brand I wear at all. On more than one occasion, people have told me that I do not look like I am from Delhi, based on how plain and un-flashy I am..

4. Family vs Independence: This was bound to happen. Individual independence is so big in the US as compared to India. I am used to my independence, and not being questioned by family as I decide what to do. Is this good? Not necessarily. Family opinion adds a value.But it take more time to hear everyone, consider perspectives, take a decision and then explain to everyone why you took that decision. I just don't do that anymore.

5.Patience: I am much more impatient now: whether it is in expecting quick and good customer service from companies, or just how fast one comes to a decision. Imagine this nightmarish situation that happened in India, and how frustrated it made me.

My wife and I were supposed to travel via Air France from Delhi to Chicago. She fell sick on the day and was medically unfit to travel. I tried calling Air France to let them know of the situation. Guess what? Their office in Delhi closes at 5 PM and there is no number to call after that time. What time do ALL their flights depart? 1 AM or later! Can one imagine such a situation in the US? The only way to actually tell them is to go to the airport. However, this is completely acceptable to all their customers: apparently I was the only one who had a problem! I guess my notion of customer service is so different now...

Conclusion? I have definitely 'Americanized' in some ways. But in a lot of ways? Not so much...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Student Led Forum - Military Leadership

One of the best things about being at Kellogg is being surrounded by a group of extremely talented individuals. However, often we do not take full advantage of this diversity to learn from them, broaden our own perspectives. To this end, the Business Leadership Club at Kellogg started a new series called the Student Led Forum series.

The first in this batch was a panel called ‘Lessons in Military Leadership.’ The panel consisted of five people who served in the various branches of the armed forces - Army, Navy and Air Force, both in and outside US. And I have to say, after listening to the panel, I definitely left inspired.

The panel discussed the style of Leadership in the Armed Forces. Rank definitely plays a big part, and you are trained to listen to your superiors. However, what works even better is Servant Leadership. “Officers Eat Last” rings true in the armed forces. When food is served, soldiers go and eat first, and the officers eat what is left over.

Another key aspect of Leadership in the Armed Forces was leading by example, and aligning incentives. The only international army officer, Jeff (from the Israel Navy) gave us an example of this. He was faced with the task of motivating several soldiers who were nearing the end of their term of their time in the forces, and wanted to get back home as soon as possible. In order to inspire them, he first of all led by example, doing some of the ‘dirty work’ himself. Second, he laid out a plan such that once they did the initial setup, the soldiers could come in just once a week to maintain it, and as long as they did the work, they were free to spend the rest of the time at home.

The one thing that came up several times in the panel was how well most people in the armed forces perform under pressure. Whether it is coming under enemy fire, or a submarine flooding, people just put their heads down and get things done. A lot of this is to do with training of two kinds. First, repeated training of exactly the right steps to follow when faced with an emergency. For example, if there is a fire – run TOWARDS it. Who in their right mind would do that, unless being trained over and over again, to do so? The second type of training was on dealing with ambiguous situations, and making a decision and taking action, even with limited information.

Of course, no panel with the armed forces would be complete without some real war stories. On being asked about the scariest moments, one of the panelists said “Well, there was this one time in Iraq that a roadside bomb went off and blew away the front half of my truck, and I was left with my legs hanging out, luckily, completely unharmed. That was a bit scary. Compared to that, other emergencies, like interviews or assignment deadlines don’t seem that scary anymore.”

The panel left me extremely inspired, and feeling lucky to be surrounded by such an accomplished class. Next up – Student Led Forum - Leadership in Software Engineering!